Shooting Photos from an Open-Door Helicopter: My Flight over Manhattan and Newark Airport

Oct 22, 2017

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You’ve seen the pictures: amazing helicopter selfies hanging over an urban landscape, shot while floating among the skyscrapers. Or maybe they’re incredible images of airplanes taking off, shot from above with a change of perspective that leaves viewers stunned for a moment. These are the ultimate in AvGeek experiences, made possible by helicopter companies that sell flights, typically around 30 minutes, over cities or airports — an increasingly popular activity for aviation enthusiasts, and for travelers who want to experience a new city in a completely new way.

I sampled one of them — over New York City — this weekend to see if doors-off, sightseeing helicopter flights are all they’re cracked up to be. Spoiler: They are, and then some. With pictures like these to show for it, you won’t go home unhappy.

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The flight I picked was with FlyNYON, which offers supremely AvGeek-y overflights of New York’s airports, as well as rides around Manhattan to photograph the urban canyons of downtown and midtown from above.

With flights also available in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami, FlyNYON is a relatively large outfit. Its NYC-area flights depart from Kearny, New Jersey, close to Newark airport and a quick car ride away from Manhattan. I chose a 30-minute flight over JFK airport, which as every AvGeek knows is your best option in the area to spot big, exotic jets.

Booking online is a snap. One caveat: It’s not cheap. I paid $846.94 with tax, plus $80 in Lyft rides from Brooklyn to the FlyNYON facility and back (it’s nowhere near convenient public transit). Flights that don’t include airport overflights are less expensive. I paid using my new Citi Prestige card; the cost of the flight went toward meeting the sign-up bonus offer of 75,000 ThankYou points after you spend $7,500 within the first three months of account opening. Normally I’d use the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which offers 3x points on travel.

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After a safety briefing in a beautiful industrial loft, you’re helped into the harness that will keep you strapped to the helicopter; your gear is then hooked to the harness and you are driven out to the helipad.

Inside the FlyNYON offices in Kearny, New Jersey
Inside the FlyNYON offices in Kearny, New Jersey

Waiting for you and up to four fellow passengers is a Eurocopter AS350, a six-place chopper descended from a long line of rugged, incredibly versatile utility helicopters. (One of them even landed on the summit of Everest, setting a world record for helicopter altitude.)

At the Kearny heliport, waiting to board.
At the Kearny heliport, waiting to board.

FlyNYON says business is brisk; our flight was one of 18 that day, and the choppers at the Kearny helipad were decidedly busy.

The company also quickly solved a problem that might have scuttled the entire experience. JFK’s tower denied us permission to overfly the airport, citing a shift change at the tower during our allotted time. (“They’re probably just short-staffed,” griped one of my companions on the flight.) A FlyNYON team member offered to ask Newark if they would have us instead, and to extend the flight to 45 minutes plus a pass over Manhattan and Teterboro Airport to make up for the snafu.

Since we were all AvGeeks — who else but a member of this club would willingly get up at 5am on a Saturday to shoot some planes? — we easily agreed to this new plan, and after FlyNYON confirmed it with air traffic control, we were off towards EWR.

With United Airlines jets all over, I was reminded of why this place is the second home of TPG editor-at-large and United million miler Zach Honig, and I photographed all manner of UA jets, doing all kinds of things.

Ship 666, a Boeing 767-300ER, takes off from runway 4R, bound for London Heathrow
Ship 666, a Boeing 767-300ER, takes off from runway 4R, bound for London Heathrow.
An Airbus A319 lands with thrust reversers deployed
An Airbus A319 lands with thrust reversers deployed.
A Boeing 777-200 taxiing
A Boeing 777-200ER taxiing.
A Boeing 737-800 with "scimitar" winglets
A Boeing 737-700 with “scimitar” winglets.
An Embrarer 175 regional jet burns some rubber on landing
An Embrarer 175 regional jet burns some rubber on landing.

That’s a lot of United. But who’s complaining when you’re this close to the action? And, if you just aren’t into United, there’s occasionally something else at EWR, too — like this 777-300ER from Air India, which Zach did not like at all when he flew it earlier this year…

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At the gate before its nonstop flight to Delhi.

…and a brand spanking new 787-9 from El Al, which TPG‘s Emily McNutt did like instead when she flew the inaugural service to Tel Aviv last week.

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EWR is also a major freight hub, and FedEx maintains a large presence here. If you want to see freighters of all kinds — including an Airbus A300-600, a wide-body twinjet from the 1980s that now flies only as a cargo carrier and only Iranian airlines keep in passenger service — then Newark is the spot for you.

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The headphones provided to listen to conversation between the pilot and controllers are a great AvGeek touch — you get to hear clearances and warnings, and you can anticipate what is going to happen. So when we heard our pilot ask for clearance to overfly downtown Manhattan and then heard back our radio call sign — “Liberty Four, proceed as requested” — we knew we were in for a treat.

Looking East over downtown Manhattan
Looking East over downtown Manhattan.

Obviously, this flight is not a good idea if you suffer from vertigo. And with the bright morning sun glaring in our face, the images looking east were backlit, but when we turned west, One World Trade Center shone gloriously at us. It’s also a good marker of altitude; the tower is 1,776 feet, so you need only look at it to judge your height.

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A westbound look over Manhattan and New Jersey.

If you’re not taking a video camera, or a video-capable still camera, you can have your phone strapped to your harness in a special holder with a convenient handle. (Selfie sticks are not allowed on board.) I’m pretty sure the video I shot on my phone looks like every other video of One World Trade Center ever made from a helicopter by a non-pro, but I was too busy being in AvGeek heaven to think about art.

And precisely because this was an AvGeek flight, we turned west towards Teterboro Airport (TEB), which serves private aviation, mostly business jets. And business jets is what we found — many more than TEB can host in the usual manner, parked side by side on the tarmac.

For an airport, that is a good problem to have, one that Teterboro solves creatively…

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very creatively. Don’t you hate it when they block your Gulfstream with other planes?

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Extra AvGeek points if you can spot in the shot above the stylish Piaggio Avanti, the tiny but fast turboprop that’s currently the only passenger airplane made in Italy.

Bottom line

This is not a cheap thrill, but it’s worth it in spades and will make an amazing gift for any AvGeeks in your circle. It was the first doorless helicopter ride for me, but my companions, all repeat fliers, were every bit as enthusiastic as I was when we got back on terra firma.

When I texted a photo of my feet hanging 1,500 feet over Manhattan to my family in Milan, my dad replied “I can feel the adrenalin from here!” and my brother texted back “Whoa, man!” followed by an unprintable, but enthusiastic, Italian expression of awe. That’s the reaction you can expect from your friends and family as well.

The good news is that you get a 40% discount on repeat flights, so I purchased two $499 “NYC Classic” 30-minute flights over the city for $598 altogether and plan to take someone up with me next time.

FlyNYON doesn’t suspend its activity in the colder months, but doorless choppers are, if you ask me, an April-to-November sport in New York City. During our flight, a balmy 70F on the ground became a fairly cold experience up in the air: I definitely needed the hat and gloves I brought.

Also, come prepared: you can’t change lenses or batteries in flight, because any dropped item becomes a deadly projectile. I took with me a wide angle to telephoto zoom on one camera, a long 500mm zoom on another for airplane closeups, and my phone for backup and selfies — a setup I found to be perfect.

A previous version of this story misidentified the helicopter as a Eurocopter AS355. It is in fact an A350. The story has been corrected.

All images by the author.

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